Part four of our Horse Racing series
Every November, there exists a series of races known as the Breeders’ Cup Championships, began with the idea of it being used as just that, championship races. The first running of the Breeders’ Cup series was in 1984 and has continued since then, the series rotating between different tracks in the United States. Initially a one-day event, the series has grown and is now run over two consecutive days.
Now, not just any racehorse can compete in the Breeders’ Cup series. To compete, a horse must have been nominated to the races, either when they were a foal or sometime during their racing career. When a racehorse is nominated within their first year of life (before their official first birthday of January 1st), the fee is significantly lower; if paid early enough, i.e. before October 1st of the year they were born in, the fee is as low as $400 US. From that point, the fee keeps climbing. Between October 1st and December 15th of their birth year, the fee is $1500 US.
Once a racehorse reaches two years of age, it can still be nominated to the series, but the cost is much higher, starting at $12,000 US. Compared to that, the foal nomination prices are cheap, and a result a buyer may be willing to pay more for a young racing prospect who has already been nominated to the series.
To get into the starting gate itself in a race, there are several ways a horse can do so. The first is by winning a race designated as a “win and you’re in” for a specific Breeders’ Cup race. The second is by racking up points by placing first, second, or third in a graded stakes race. The higher the race quality, the higher the number of points won. For example, for a win in a Grade 1 race a horse collects ten points. However, horses who qualify based on those two criteria make up only half of the fourteen-horse field. The other half are horses selected for entry by a panel of experts, based on a list of horses who are pre-entered by their connections.
Now, on to the races themselves.
The Juvenile Turf is run at one mile on grass and is restricted to two-year-olds. Its counterpart, the Juvenile Fillies Turf, is the exact same race, but for fillies only. Both races are relatively new; the Breeders’ Cup series has had races come and go in the years since its inauguration. In 2016 the Juvenile Turf was won by Oscar Performance, and the Juvenile Fillies Turf was won by New Money Honey.
The Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies are run at 1 1/16 miles over a dirt track and are limited to two-year-olds. Both races were part of the original seven Breeders’ Cup races, and have often produced leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. However, no horse completed the Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double until Street Sense won the 2006 Juvenile and the 2007 Derby. Nine years later, last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Nyquist, became the second horse to complete the double. The 2016 editions of the races were won by Classic Empire and Champagne Room, respectively.
There are three sprint races. The first, the Sprint, is six furlongs on dirt, open to three-year-olds and up, and was another of the seven original Breeders’ Cup races. The 2016 edition was won by Drefong. Next comes the Turf Sprint, also open to three-year-olds and up. Depending on the track, this race may be run at different distances. The 2016 running was won by Obviously, in a race at six and a half furlongs. The final sprint race is the Filly and Mare Sprint. As its name suggests, it is the sprint race restricted to only fillies and mares, three years of age and up. It is run on the dirt track at seven furlongs, and Finest City won the race in 2016.
Two races are run at a one-mile distance, the Mile and the Dirt Mile. The Mile is one of the original seven races in the Breeders’ Cup championships and has been run on turf. In 2007, the Dirt Mile was introduced. In 2016, Tamarkuz won the Dirt Mile, and Tourist won the Mile. Goldikova, a racemare who was based in France but traveled to the US to race on multiple occasions, holds the distinction of being the only racehorse to have won three consecutive runnings of a Breeders’ Cup race; she won the 2008, 2009, and 2010 editions of the Mile, and attempted to beat her own record in 2011 but finished third in the race. She is also one of only two horses to have ever won three Breeders’ Cup races, the other being Beholder, who won the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff in 2013 and 2016.
The racehorses who excel at distance on the turf have two options: the Turf and the Filly and Mare Turf. The Turf is run at 1 ½ miles, the longest of the currently-running Breeders’ Cup races and one of the original seven Breeders’ Cup races. In comparison, the Filly and Mare Turf is run at 1 ¼ miles, though it has also been run at different distances depending on how the host track’s turf course is set up. Last year, Queen’s Trust won the Filly and Mare Turf and Highland Reel won the Turf over the 2015 winner, the filly Found.
Finally, we look at the Classic and the Distaff, both two of the original seven races.
The Distaff is run at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt and is open to three-year-old and up fillies and mares. Often, this is the race when the top three-year-old fillies from the year face older fillies and mares for the first time. Last year’s race was focused on a showdown between Beholder (champion older mare of 2015, Stellar Wind (champion three-year-old filly of 2015), and Songbird (champion two-year-old filly of 2015 and to that point undefeated). In a thrilling finish, Beholder won by a nose over Songbird, who was valiant in her first defeat. Other notable winners of the Distaff include Royal Delta (who won in both 2011 and 2012), Zenyatta (2008), and Bayakoa (1989 and 1990). Mike Smith holds the record for the most wins in the race, having won it five times, with Inside Information in 1995, Ajina in 1997, Azeri in 2002, Zenyatta in 2008, and Royal Delta in 2012.
The Classic is run at 1 ¼ miles on the dirt, open to three-year-olds and up, and often – but not always – features matchups between the winners of that year’s Triple Crown races and the best older horses racing, including past Triple Crown race winners. The Classic of 2016 was an anticipated showdown between California Chrome (who dominated the older horse division of 2016 and won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2014) and Arrogate, the late-bloomer who set a record in winning the Travers Stakes in late August. Arrogate prevailed over California Chrome, setting off a heated debate between fans as to which was the better horse. Prominent past winners of the Classic include Tiznow, who remains the only horse to have won the Classic twice (2000 and 2001), American Pharoah (winner of the 2015 Triple Crown, the first winner in over three decades), and Curlin (2007 Preakness Stakes winner). In 2009, Zenyatta made history by becoming the first and only filly or mare to win the Classic, doing so at the age of five, one year after winning the Distaff. In 2010 Zenyatta attempted to earn herself a repeat victory, but was just barely edged out by Blame at the wire, her first-ever defeat in the final race of her incredible career.
The Breeders’ Cup Championship series is always great to watch, as many incredible moments in horse racing history have played out during those races. This November, who knows what will happen? The stars from last year may fade, or shine even brighter. Can Arrogate repeat his victory in the Classic? Can Songbird become victorious in the Distaff? Will Classic Empire prove to be a contender in any of the races, following his victory in the Juvenile? It all remains to be seen.